Abstention in 2001? The Messages of 2000
Polls and speculations abound on the subject of abstentions in the coming elections. The following is a reflection on the abstentions in last year’s municipal elections.
David Orozco González
It was a given before the municipal elections of November 2000: Nicaraguans vote, come what may. The population turned out en masse for the presidential elections of both 1984 and 1990—the latter called by some the "elections of the century"—and even in 1996, despite the fact that each of these three electoral exercises was very different and took place in a very different context.
The competition level, just to mention one qualitative indicator used to characterize each election, was different in each of these three processes. International studies, with comparative examples from Latin American, European and North American countries, have noted that our young, impoverished and poorly educated electorate should learn toward abstention. Factor in the weaknesses of the transport and communication systems, both of which affect the administration of elections, and this proclivity should become reality. Nonetheless, abstention in Nicaragua was always very limited; people voted. This makes us a curious case, of interest to international comparative studies and even drew investigators to last November’s municipal elections.
The polls should have warned usStarting at the end of 1998 and lasting throughout 1999, however, polls by different commercial firms and academic institutes revealed a worrying trend: increasing numbers of people were demonstrating disillusionment and discouragement and appeared to be distancing themselves from politics. An April 1999 poll of 1,000 Managuans by the Central American University’s Institute of Polls and Public Opinion Surveys (IDESO-UCA) indicated that 66.2% of those interviewed were apathetic toward all political parties. The same month, over 55% of those interviewed in a national poll by CID-Gallup stated that they had no party sympathy, while the levels of disapproval of specific politicians were extremely high. That was when the specter of abstention began to emerge.
In September 2000, two months before the municipal elections, IDESO-UCA conducted another poll, this time a national one that even covered the seldom-included urban population of the Caribbean Coast, aimed in part at detecting a possible inclination toward abstention. The results showed that a strong 34.1% of the youngest group of potential voters was leaning toward abstention. The national average of declared abstainers and those who "doubted" they would vote was 25.5%. This ought to have suggested that the abstention rate would be high but it set off no alarm bells because the most high-powered campaign thrust was yet to come and there is an almost "natural" tendency for the electorate to make its final decision closer to election day.
As far as we know, none of the published polls conducted by any private firm, NGO or academic institution after ours registered an abstention even close to the surprising 44% that in fact occurred on election day last November 5. What could have happened between the time of the last of these polls and the day itself, when people stayed away from the voting station in such numbers? And what lessons can we learn from such an unexpectedly high percentage of abstention?
Technical impediment: No voting card?For one thing, the IDESO-UCA poll of September 2000 did implicitly reveal certain technical problems in the electoral process. Only 60 days before the elections, 21% of those polled said they had no voting card, though 70% of that number had requested them.
A national poll conducted by the Nicaraguan organization CINCO in February 2001, three months after the municipal elections, showed that of all those who admitted not having voted, 28.5% declared that it was simply because they had no voting card. Among them, 4.8% actually tried to vote, but could not do so because their names also did not appear on the rolls for their voting station. Although the sample populations from the two polls are not identical, they reflect a very similar situation.
These figures lead us to the first reason for the high abstention rate for 2000, a technical problem with the administration of the elections. Nonetheless, while it is reasonable to assume that the imperfections of the electoral rolls exacerbated the abstention, that is only a small part of the explanation. Abstention reached an astronomical 80% in Puerto Cabezas and some other municipalities, and 57% in ones such as Chinandega and El Viejo, municipalities historically known for their "intermediate" abstention levels.
Political impediment: No credibility?Another set of reasons seems to be linked to the lack of credibility of the political system, although at different levels and with different intensities. At one level, we could blame this lack of credibility on the campaigns designed by the parties themselves. The "natural tendency" of voters, in which apathy gradually gives way to opting for one of the political choices as voting day approaches, did not materialize on this particular occasion because the campaign contents and formats, rather than "wooing" the citizens, ended up boring and discouraging them, increasing their distrust.
Institutional impediment: No confidence?A third ingredient that went into the high abstention figures seems to have been the lack of confidence in the electoral branch of government itself. In mid-September 2000, only 40.3% of the potential voters believed the elections would be "clean and transparent" and only 48% considered the Supreme Electoral Council "impartial and even-handed." These percentages of skeptics coincide with the percentages of abstainers.
Structural impediment: No importance?Yet another variable that helps explain the abstention levels is the limited importance Nicaraguans give to municipal elections. One line of analysis presented in recent political science literature, based on different national case studies, states that participation levels are higher in elections seen as crucial and far lower in routine elections, which are most common in developed countries with consolidated democracies. The case of Switzerland, where elections are frequently held, is often cited because this European country is so stable that not even the presidential elections are seen as vital.
Applying the logic of this reasoning to our reality, people who would not necessarily participate in the municipal elections will vote in the national elections, considering them more important. While it is impossible to verify such a thesis yet, it is worth asking why last year’s municipal elections may not have been viewed as important. After all, they were not routine, as it was only the third time they have ever been held in the country and the first time they were held separately from other elections. Furthermore, Nicaragua is nothing like Switzerland. Is there truth to the idea that Nicaraguans consider municipal elections unimportant and thus did not feel compelled to vote? And if so, what factors might be behind this disdain?
With Nicaragua’s limited electoral trajectory, it would be foolhardy to think we could fully explain such unanticipated lack of enthusiasm. We do, however, have enough evidence to suggest an interpretation. One explanation could lie in the negative evaluation of the outgoing mayor’s administration. Only 6.5% of all those polled in the September 2000 IDESO-UCA survey stated that the mayor of their municipality, elected in 1996, had totally fulfilled his or her campaign promises, while 43.8% identified with the statement at the other extreme, that their mayor "did nothing." A question about management of municipal funds and goods showed a similarly negative assessment.
This strongly negative view goes hand in hand with an element discovered by the CINCO investigation, based on its February 2001 poll: the hand-picking of mayoral candidates by the top national leaders of the different political parties increased discontent in many municipalities. Another factor, this one more structural, is the paucity of resources afflicting most municipal governments, together with the fact that local problems so often must be dealt with (or aggravated, as the case may be) by supra-municipal institutions and individuals. While the bulk of municipal responsibilities and tasks are now in the hands of local government as the result of a decentralization process, they cannot take genuine responsibility because the central government still controls the purse strings. Such institutional distortion reinforces discontent, since in most cases the citizenry only perceives that the mayor’s office has nothing to offer.
We need to interpret our own abstentionAt best, comparisons with abstention levels in other countries are not useful in interpreting what happened in Nicaragua in November 2000, and when made by Nicaraguan politicians—"Only half the population votes in the United States"—they are manipulative per se. Each country has its own electoral legislation, its own accrediting system, its own electoral and political system. Above all, each country has a specific territory and political culture. We need a detailed understanding of every element at play in our country. Nicaragua is a democracy that is as fragile as it is young. And curiously enough it is in that very context that Nicaraguans have assigned so much importance to elections, having verified that they are one of the most effective mechanisms of change in these past 11 years.
Looking for just one explanation of our complex reality places a negative limitation on our way of thinking, because it facilitates and justifies thinking less. The administrative and technical efforts made by the electoral authorities to conclude the ID/voting card process and bring the voting rolls up to date before the national elections this year have been laudable. In contrast, aspects related to distrust and apathy towards politicians and the political system have barely been addressed, and may even have worsened over the course of this year.
Whatever its causes, the politicians running for national office in this year’s election have minimized last year’s high abstention rates, brandishing different arguments to justify them: "This level of abstention is normal," "If they don’t want to participate, then too bad!" These are simply ways to turn one’s back on themes linked to the construction and consolidation of democracy. In electoral ills, as in any others, therapy begins by analyzing the symptoms so that the treatment can be as thoroughgoing and complex as merited.
Abstention is a statementRather than assuming that the municipal elections were unimportant in voters’ eyes, they could instructively be interpreted as very important, however paradoxical it may sound. They offered the citizenry the opportunity to demonstrate its displeasure with the whole system, with the lack of credibility affecting not only politicians both in and out of office, but also the political and institutional system itself. And one could argue that voters indeed sent a clear message by staying away from the polling stations in droves: one of disagreement, discontent and distrust. Is there still time to hear that messages?